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Idling the Engine: Linguistic Skepticism In and Around Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 169-171 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0126

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In Idling the Engine: Linguistic Skepticism in and Around Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce, E. Joseph Sharkey presents a highly original and compelling discussion of "linguistic skepticism" manifest in the works of the modernist writers he examines. Among the precursors to twentieth-century linguistic skepticism, Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy stand as great literary examples. But whereas in Miguel de Cervantes human limitations are confronted through mockery, and in Laurence Sterne through the comic mode, in John Milton, the "orientation to human finitude" is tragic (1). Sharkey argues that the "tragic orientation" of Milton's characters prefigures their twentieth-century counterparts, and he borrows Paradise Lost "as a kind of primer" for his chapters on Julio Cortázar, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce (10).

In chapter 1, "Introduction: Paradise Lost as an Allegory of Finitude," Sharkey first analyzes Milton's Satan "who exhibits two qualities characteristic of the skeptical protagonists of Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce: an unjustified and insatiable pride, and … a specious logic used to justify a preexisting emotional bent" (4). Second, he looks at the perpetual "cycle of self-destruction" through the choice of one's own will over God's and the suffering and self-pitying that such a choice engenders (4). Finally, the author takes up Raphael's moment of doubt and his role "as the epic's internal literary theorist," a figure also seen in Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce: "faced with a challenge to the story he tells, Raphael must offer a solution both for himself and for Milton, and do so without dragging his author into the skeptical confusion of his characters" (4).

Sharkey reads Paradise Lost in the light of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose "common role in the twentieth century as dissidents from the faith of linguistic skepticism" is of particular value to the book (22). For Sharkey, Gadamer and Wittgenstein are "united by a profound appreciation for the efficacy of language" (22) and by recognition of epistemological limitations it imposes. Gadamer's observation that we become conscious of language when it fails to work and Wittgenstein's metaphor for this phenomenon, "idling the engine," point to the dissatisfaction with language's distancing effect. Sharkey employs this metaphor to describe "all habits of thought that ignore the historicity of our being and understanding, all attempts to arrest the self in order to get a good look at it" (24). In the three chapters that follow, Cortázar's Horacio Oliveira, Kafka's Land-Surveyor K., and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus are presented as the skeptics par excellence of modernist literature.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Cortázar and Kafka respectively, but it is chapter 4, "The Skeptic and the Hermeneut in Joyce," that is of immediate interest here, as well as the book's conclusion, "Joyce's Teacup." Chapter 4 offers sub-sections on Stephen Dedalus and on Leopold Bloom. The premise of the former, titled "Stephen's Rejection of Finitude," is that Stephen Dedalus, proud to a fault, models himself after Satan and, like Satan, he "abandons and recuperates himself perpetually" (192). Stephen's "egregious moment of self-absorption"—in effect, his refusal to grant his dying mother's request for prayer—is echoed, according to Sharkey, in Cortázar by Oliveira's refusal to respond to the dying Rocamadour (194). The two protagonists share a deep suspicion of language even as it becomes the medium of their artistry.

The second subsection in this chapter, "Bloom's Finite Existence and Hermeneutical Aesthetics, Bloomitas," centers on Bloom as a protagonist unlike the ones discussed thus far: he "is not hyperselfconscious, though he is far from unselfconscious. Not perfectly happy, he is not unhappy, even though he is every bit as finite as Stephen or Oliveira" (226). Sharkey sees Bloom as a "fitting hero" for Ulysses because Bloom "is not rebelling against finitude" (226). The kind of systematic philosophical discussion we see applied to the characters of Kafka and Cortázar—and to Joyce's Stephen—is not (cannot be, really) sustained when it comes to Bloom. After situating the thrust of Bloom's aesthetic as ontological rather than epistemological, and falling "somewhere between Stephen's...



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